The importance of web standards

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France
47° 34' 54.6528" N, 2° 39' 31.2876" E

One of the key selling points of my website development service is that sites I develop conform to web standards, and I keep banging on about this. So why does this matter so much?

To recap: web standards are a collection of international standards that specify what is and isn’t acceptable HTML, XHTML and so on – the code that holds together and structures the content of web pages. They are thrashed out and agreed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the organisation headed by Tim Berners-Lee.

There’s no ‘rule’ that says that websites have to conform to these standards, but there are plenty of reasons why websites should conform to these standards. To appreciate this, just consider the following brief glimpse of the mechanics of the web. Websites have two main visitors: real people using browsers and automated bots and crawlers that are on a mission initiated by search engines. The latter are entirely automated and their job is to ‘read’ a website in order to extract its content, what the site is about. To do this, they use a set of ‘parsing rules’ which enable them to separate the content from all the other formatting ‘mark-up’ that a web page contains. These parsing rules are based upon the standards specifications that apply to HTML, XHTML and so on. If a web page is written in such a way that it conforms to web standards, the search engine’s visit is easy and the site’s content is nice and cleanly ‘read’ (or ‘parsed’), then indexed, then ranked (using a different set of rules). If that same web page is written in such a way that it doesn’t conform to these standards, the process may well result in inaccuracies and the site may get ‘misunderstood’. Bad news. Potentially very bad news indeed.

You can get an approximate view of what happens by using a free on-line tool provided by the W3C known as the W3C Validator. Fire it up in your browser and enter any web address (URL) and see what the results show. It gives you a very good insight into what happens when an automated visit encounters either a valid or an invalid web page.

Of course, this isn’t everything. A valid web page may still be useless because of its design or even its content! But the real argument is: if you have a good design and good content on your website, why not make it validate? Why lay obstacles in the path of search engines? Why not make all your site’s pages conform to web standards so that they validate? Is there a good reason to put obstacles in the path of the search engines?

After all, is it that difficult to create websites that validate 100%? No, in fact it’s relatively easy. If you build web pages with care (keeping the basics of these standards in mind), then clean them up using the W3C Validator, getting web pages to validate and conform to web standards is relatively easy. It’s a matter of attention to detail and wanting your clients to have a site that is truly search engine friendly.

OK, so why don’t web developers create sites that are 100% valid? Well, you’d have to ask them yourself. My guess is that either they don’t know about this issue (amazingly) or they do know and can’t be bothered. Whether a site conforms (is valid) is, after all, ‘invisible’ and if the client doesn’t know about this, they won’t ask and they won’t discover the potential glitches inherent in their site.

I have long experience in writing software, a business where what the user sees is accepted as being the tip of the iceberg, meaning that much of my experience has been with the 90% of the work that goes on unseen beneath the surface. That’s tremendously useful experience when applied to website development – and the issue of compliance with web standards is the best example of this perspective in action.

So how many website developers bother about this? The answer is “not many”. But before elaborating upon this, if you check out the very best website development practitioners, you’ll find that their sites do validate 100%. But there aren’t many of them and they’re at the top of their profession, with prices to match. Equally, there are thousands whose own sites fail to validate – and often quite severely. Indeed, I’ve come across a major website development company in New York whose blog article about this very issue (and it’s a hard-hitting argument about why websites should conform to standards and should validate) crashes on the W3C Validator with 110 errors and 58 warnings! So beware: don’t believe everything you read on this subject. Test it out for real by using the W3C Validator!

Armed with this information, you should now be better informed about how to choose a website developer. Check out their site: does it validate? Check out some of the sites that they have written for their clients: do they validate? Remember: a good website has a lot going on underneath the surface. How it’s been put together can have a huge impact upon how search engines can process (and then rank) a site. Get rid of the obstacles to this process. Make sure that your site conforms to web standards and validates!

For backup reading on this whole issue, I encourage you to check out the Web Standards Project’s view on this matter.